HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Thursday, June 1, 2006

TV - Human Behavior Experiments

For those of you planning to watch some TV this evening, the New York Times provides a good review for Human Behavior, showing tonight at 9pm on the Sundance channel and Court TV:

People wonder how ordinary American soldiers, men and women, could have mistreated prisoners so barbarically at Abu Ghraib. "The Human Behavior Experiments," a documentary on both Court TV and the Sundance Channel tonight, suggests that actually it's surprising such things don't happen more often. . .

"Human Behavior," written and produced by Alex Gibney, who also made "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," fills in some of the psychological blanks by illustrating how, in certain circumstances, people readily obey even far-fetched instructions. Most of all, the film shows how easily people lose perspective and basic decency when in the grip of a credible authority figure or even just a difficult group dynamic.

Old film taken from interviews with Dr. Milgram, who died in 1984, reveal a mild, slightly pedantic man with big glasses and a chin beard, who explains that the Holocaust made him want to understand better how it was possible for ordinary people to act "callously and inhumanely." He set out to study authority and explore, as he put it, "under what conditions could a person obey, when commanded, actions that went against conscience."

He devised a study in which subjects delivered what they thought were painful electric jolts to a fellow participant, merely because they were encouraged to do so by the scientist in charge who assured them it was necessary for a learning experiment. The film shows one middle-aged man balking after hearing what he thinks is the subject howling in pain (in reality it is a recording), but many more — about 60 percent — keep increasing the pain levels under calm but firm instruction from the experimenter, "Continue, please."

Dr. Zimbardo's prison study was even more shocking, if only because the students assigned to play guards were not instructed to be abusive, and instead conformed to their own notions of how to keep order in a prison: "Lord of the Flies" in sideburns and aviator sunglasses. The prisoners were blindfolded, stripped, assigned numbers and forced to wear skimpy hospital gowns and ankle chains. The guards were given handcuffs, whistles and billy clubs. The scientists received a shocking display of how, as one of them put it, "human nature transformed in a very rapid way in the face of a very powerful situation."

The abuse kept escalating until, on the fourth day, it turned into sexual humiliation. Prisoners began breaking down. Dr. Zimbardo and his team were so engrossed by the experiment that they too lost sight of reality. In the film Dr. Zimbardo recalls that it was not until his girlfriend visited the mock prison and threatened to break up with him that he snapped out of it and ended the study early.

The Stanford students knew they were taking part in a psychology experiment. Soldiers assigned to guard prisoners at Abu Ghraib were told that the survival of comrades on the front lines depended on whether they could break the prisoners. Dr. Zimbardo, who in 2004 served as an expert witness in the court martial of Staff Sgt. Ivan Frederick II, who was convicted of assault, indecent acts and dereliction of duty at Abu Ghraib, said he was "an ordinary good guy who gets into this place and is totally corrupted."

The documentary uses several cases, from the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, when 38 neighbors in Queens heard or saw parts of the fatal attack and did nothing, to a 2005 hazing ritual that killed Matthew Carrington, a 21-year-old student at California State University, Chico, to make a point about herd mentality: that people who might give help when by themselves will, among others, hold back and follow the cues of a majority. The person who goes against the group or defies authority is a rarity.

"It is the majority who conform, who comply, who obey authority," Dr. Zimbardo says. "And that's what nobody wants to hear."

That rule is certainly something most people prefer to forget. "Human Behavior" is a riveting, if unsettling, reminder.


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